How Waldorf Brings Literacy Alive

I often hear homeschooling parents say, “I love the Waldorf approach, but what about reading?” Everyone who explores Waldorf is drawn to its beauty, but inevitably the question comes up of how and when children are taught to read and write. Parents particularly want to know about the Waldorf approach to reading.

How Waldorf Homeschooling Brings Literacy Alive

And every time I hear these concerns, I want to shout, “this method offers such a natural and effective approach to learning to read!”

In the Waldorf approach, children first enjoy drawing, then they learn to write, and then learn to read their own writing. The process may seem “slow” compared to more mainstream methods that attempt to get children reading by the end of kindergarten. But for many children, that’s too much too soon. Waldorf takes into account a child’s development in its approach to each and every subject.

I have three children who all learned to read this way. And even though they each learned to read at different ages, they learned at their own pace and now continue to enjoy reading as young adults. My oldest started reading fluently at age ten, my second at age eight, and third at age seven.

I was a high school English teacher in the classroom before becoming a parent. So when I had my first child and we chose to homeschool, one of my main objectives was to allow my children to read when they were ready and to develop a lifelong love of books and literature. Mission accomplished!

So how does the Waldorf approach help to foster literacy development and bring reading and writing to life? As we explore this unique approach to learning to read, I also want to touch on how to keep a love of literature alive.

Cracking the Mysterious Code of Reading

Reading is a very complex skill that has many parts to it. There’s a bit of mystery and magic to it as well, kind of like a code that needs to be unlocked.

Usually when we talk about learning to read, we’re talking about the very last stage when a child begins to decode letters on a page. And that’s actually the tip of the iceberg. So much has happened under the surface leading up to that point. And so much can be done afterward to continue to foster a child’s love of reading and learning.

What does this look like with the Waldorf approach? The kindergarten years are rich in so many pre-literacy skills to support the development of reading and writing in the elementary grades.

The truth is, when children are in an environment rich in literacy activities starting from a young age, they learn to read when they are ready. Period.

Some on their own, some with guided instruction, some with extra help. They crack the code!

The reason why there is some mystery and magic involved in learning to read is because we can’t actually see it happening. We don’t know if our child will be one of the ones who needs extra help, which can make us feel anxious at times.

The Waldorf curriculum is jam-packed with literacy activities all the way from kindergarten through the elementary grades:

  • Singing
  • Nursery rhymes
  • Fingerplays 
  • Drawing 
  • Verses with movement
  • Stories 
  • Read-alouds 
  • Games
  • Form drawing
child's art project - one of the stages of the Waldorf approach to reading

All of these promote literacy – the ability to read and write. Really all of the interactions we have with our children when they’re young contribute to literacy because almost all of our engagement involves language.

As parents and educators, we can familiarize ourselves with the stages of literacy and celebrate all the progress we see in our children.

Have you ever looked at the stages of literacy? They are:

  1. Recognizing shapes and signs
  2. Reading familiar words
  3. Reading short, predictable stories (over and over again with memorization)
  4. Reading early readers
  5. And finally, reading chapter books independently

Trust in these stages. They won’t let you or your children down!

A Tale of One Very Active Little Boy…

For the longest time, my oldest son just wasn’t at all interested in reading. He was a very physically active kid, and among his favorite activities were climbing trees, playing in the mud, and building with legos.

We played some phonics games and he loved our read-aloud time. But beyond that, he just didn’t seem to feel a need to learn to read.

He finally learned to read when he learned to read piano music. He was taking piano lessons and began to grasp the correlation between the musical notes on a page and the keys on the keyboard. He was 10 at the time.

Child playing the piano - a great start to the Waldorf approach to reading
Playing Piano

We had read the first two Harry Potter books aloud as a family, and he decided he wanted to read the third book on his own. So he went from reading early readers to reading a 400+ page novel all on his own.

That’s practically all he did the entire month of June that year. From that “aha” moment while learning to play piano – his reading just suddenly exploded. Overnight. One day, it just happens.

I have a Master of Arts in Teaching and I was certified as a junior high and high school English teacher. I could tell that my son was progressing through the stages of learning to read, just more slowly than some.

When I did a little research, I discovered that the normal age range for learning to read is somewhere between the ages of 4 and 12!

This helped me to stop worrying and just keep reading to my children.

The Waldorf Approach to Reading

From all of my teaching experiences – with my own children, with small groups of homeschooled children, and even classroom teaching when I worked with remedial students in high school who couldn’t read fluently – the Waldorf approach is the most natural, enjoyable, and successful of any approach that I know. Hands down.

How does it work?

Put simply, the Waldorf approach to reading progresses from drawing to writing to reading. This is quite different from the norm. A lot of approaches start with reading and then move to writing, but Waldorf puts writing first.

In the kindergarten years, there are lots of pre-literacy activities as I mentioned above. Many of these activities can take place first thing each day as a way to wake up our bodies and allow more receptivity. Songs, verses, and movement get children ready for a story and lend themselves quite well to a lively Circle Time. This approach to “reading readiness” is natural, age-appropriate, and effective.

There are no formal lessons in the kindergarten years with the Waldorf approach, no direct instruction until the year that children turn seven. But there are many stories told and read. This allows children to form inner pictures in response to the words, an important skill for later reading. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education said, “We will get far enough in the first grade so that the children will be able to write simple things that we say to them or that they compose themselves. If we stick to simple things, the children will also be able to read them.”

Introducing Letters

In first grade, children are introduced to the letters of the alphabet through fairy tales because these stories are perfectly suited to the first grade child as they emerge from the dreaminess of early childhood.

We tell or read a story one day. Then retell the story with the help of our children the next before writing a title or summary.

One important aspect of this rhythm is that it happens over two days, not all in one day. The idea is that the child takes the story into their sleep and digests it on a deeper level, coming back the next day in a more receptive place.

Children make their own lesson books that take the place of textbooks or worksheets. The child usually draws a picture into their main lesson book the first day, and writes their summary on the opposite page the next day.

Drawing of a big bad wolf - The Waldorf Approach to Reading
Main Lesson Book

And in this way, they learn to read their own writing. Even if they already know their letters, or even how to read at this stage because they taught themselves, we still create the main lesson books as a way to record the learning.

Some parents ask, “Do I even need to do this if my child is already reading?” Yes! Because children gain some ownership of language and we’re giving them a picture alphabet. They have a lot to gain from this in terms of integration even if they already know how to read.

Reading, Telling, and Choosing Stories

Whether you read a story from a book or memorize and tell a story without a book, give the child time to allow the story to sink in.

A good story captures the imagination and that’s what we’re really after. Remember, we want children to picture the story in their minds and begin to anticipate what comes next. Choose your stories carefully, and tell some from memory when you can.

I recommend becoming familiar with the story by reading it ahead of time. Perhaps you want to memorize the opening line or the first and last paragraphs so that you can be the storyteller in the beginning and the end.

Steiner set out a story curriculum and typical topics for each grade, but remember to also share stories from your childhood and your heritage. Homeschooling is about family!

Grades 2 and 3

As you progress through the grades, your child will increase the amount of writing he or she does. By the end of first grade, many children will be writing a title and perhaps one or two sentences.

In second grade, the foundational stories are animal legends and saints. Animal legends are brought first because those stories describe the foibles of human nature. The animals in these stories have human characteristics and make all kinds of mistakes. They’re greedy, they’re nosey, or lazy. And then they experience consequences as a result of their behavior.

The stories in third grade are typically from the Old Testament stories or you could do creation stories from different cultures. By then, children are working up to multiple sentences or a paragraph or two.

After your child has done her writing, have her read it back to you. That’s an important step and you can do it that same day, then you can do it at the end of the week, you can have them read it back at the end of the block, and then again at the very end of the year.

Waldorf Education brings reading skills through the arts in a methodical rhythmic way, meeting our children right where they are developmentally. It’s really a beautiful process to watch unfold.

The Waldorf Approach to Reading: Keeping Literacy Alive Through the Grades

Of course, we all want our children to enjoy reading! Reading is an essential skill to take into their adult lives.

But we want to approach our vision with creativity and gentleness, so that we don’t disturb their natural enthusiasm. Here are a few ways to instill a love of reading in your children:

  • Keep reading aloud to your children.
  • Encourage them to choose their own books to read for pleasure – anything, even comic books count!
  • Mix the whole language approach with phonetics. The English language is 50/50 – meaning that 50% of our words can be explained phonetically and 50% need to be memorized by sight.
  • Be lighthearted when teaching reading skills.
  • Be patient. 💜

I leave you with a great quote about how important it is to allow children to take their time with this process. No matter what approach we may use in our homeschooling, allowing our children to learn to read in a natural way over a number of years is well worth it.

“…All children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. 

A similar example is the age that children learn to read. Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers.”

– From the report Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, published by the Alliance for Childhood

It’s exciting to me that research backs up the benefits of the Waldorf approach to reading and literacy.

Learning to read is an exciting journey. It’s mysterious and magical. You can keep the love of reading alive by creating a literacy-rich environment in your home.

If anything inspired you from this article about bringing literacy alive with the Waldorf approach – take it with you into your homeschool! Bring art, music, games, and stories to your family. Enjoy your time with your children and relish those victories on the literacy adventure.

Jean Miller

About the author

Jean is the mother of three (two boys and a girl - all grown now!), an experienced homeschool educator, and homeschooling mentor. With a Master of Arts in Teaching, she's taught in public and private schools, as well as tutored and homeschooled. She helps hundreds of parents cultivate creativity and connection at home through her online courses, coaching, planning tools, membership community, and in-person retreats.

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